Reconstructing Harry:
some current issues in Partch biography (Part 1)
We are proud to offer to our readers the essay presented by Bob Gilmore at the 2001 UCLA Partch Centennial. Known to all Partch readers as the first official biographer of Harry, Bob takes a look back at what that effort entailed, what questions he sought answers for, and (more importantly?) what questions he feels are still out there. This is vintage Gilmore, with all the erudition one could want, leavened with his wry sense of humor. Please enjoy this thought-provoking missive from a pre-eminant authority.
Bob Gilmore
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I'd like to say first how delighted and honoured I am to be here among such marvellous (and distinguished) company, and to express my gratitude to John Schneider for the invitation to come and speak to you this afternoon.

Many of you here were, I'm sure, as amused as I was when, in 1997, Woody Allen released a movie with the title "Deconstructing Harry". Of course, he didn't mean our Harry. But by changing only one letter it would have made an ideal title for my book; for the work I did for the ten or so years preceding its publication in 1998 might be described as a process of reconstructing Harry. During those years I made it my business to unearth everything I could about the man that I considered then and still consider now to be one of America's greatest artists, and about whom---when I began my research in earnest in 1987---so little had been written. Even the facts of his life were then only sketchily known to the musical world at large.

What I thought to do this afternoon is, in a way, to re-open parts of the process of "reconstructing Harry", and to share with you my thoughts about current issues, mysteries, or dilemmas in Partch's biography, including some of those areas that I feel are not yet satisfactorily settled, and about which further research and reflection is needed. For despite the best efforts of those scholars who have worked on Partch issues in recent years---myself included---there remain not a few puzzling things about Harry Partch's life, issues that may never really be resolved fully, but that might be fun to share with you this afternoon.

Biography is a curious genre. The English biographer Richard Holmes has called it a "love-match" between invention and truth. In England, and I think the same is true in the United States, it is both despised and adored. Despised, inasmuch as every biography is an intrusion into a private world, the inner life of an artist or celebrity. It therefore raises ethical questions about how justified we are in making public things about a person that they themselves would probably have rather left unsaid, but are prevented (by death) from objecting to. James Joyce, in a memorable phrase from Finnegans Wake, describes the conniving, privacy-invading biographer as the "biografiend": and the eighteenth-century English writer Dr. Arbuthnot remarked that biography had added a new terror to dying. But occasionally the artist gets his/her own back: some of you may recall the legal battle some years ago when the reclusive (and still very much living) novelist J.D. Salinger took his (British) biographer Ian Hamilton through the courts and successfully impeded publication of Hamilton's would-have-been biography of him on the grounds that its publication would constitute an invasion of Salinger's much-coveted privacy. But whatever the objections to it, biography is adored at the same time by the reading public as being a lively genre, engaging, gripping. Real lives are often more incredible than fictional ones. (And certainly no novelist could have invented a character like Harry Partch.)

You will not be surprised to learn that Harry had some pertinent things to say about biography. One day, many years ago, I was working through a box of papers that Danlee Mitchell had in San Diego, and you can imagine my consternation on finding a memo, scribbled in Partch's most assertive handwriting, that said: "Biography---it is so trivial. The larger world is trivial beyond belief. So let us be less trivial than that larger world." It really felt like he'd written that just for me, for Bob, to discover many years after his death, politely but firmly telling me to leave him alone and get a life.

Then there is the marvellous passage in the Preface to the second edition of Genesis of a Music in which he is talking about the path-breaking step taken by the individualist creative artist, and he says (in a memorable phrase) that the individual's "path cannot be retraced, for each of us is an original being." I love that idea: it's so true, and so beautifully expressed. But in a sense what I did was precisely what he warned me was impossible: I tried to retrace his path. I suppose part of me read that statement as a deliberate provocation or challenge: his proclamation---you cannot retrace my path---felt like an enticement to try. For the biographer such a statement really throws down the gauntlet.

Certainly, as biographical subjects go, he was no serving of tapioca. Several periods of his life have left only the patchiest of documentation: much of his childhood, his twenties, and (not surprisingly, perhaps) his hobo years in the later 1930s. To give you some idea of the problem of sources, consider that the earliest surviving letter written by Harry Partch, to the best of my knowledge, dates from 1931, when he was already thirty years old. Tom McGeary wrote rather pessimistically in his Introduction to the Bitter Music anthology that "little will ever be known of the first forty years of Partch's life". The problems in documenting Harry came up at the memorial meeting held in his honour some three weeks after he died in 1974, and I'd like to play you a short extract from the tape recording (which still survives) of that meeting. In it, those present have begun to recall stories and anecdotes that Partch told them about his childhood, and Lou Harrison suggests the urgency of the need to document these memories. You'll hear Lou's voice first and, briefly, Stephen Pouliot's:

LH: Speaking of such subjects, couldn't we send in written things that we think about, or as a matter of fact on anything we think about, that we might not think about here for example...
SP: It should be done, because...
LH: If we send in things to Danlee, he can keep them and sort them out, because I have the feeling there's going to be some difficulty in writing a biography of Harry Partch.
But none of these difficulties or warnings, I should say, really put me off: they just added to the fun.

As I worked on Partch's life . . .